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The Spratlys: Marcos’ legacy, or curse?

Make no mistake about it. The Spratly islands dispute could get messy. In March 1987, a clash between Chinese and Vietnamese warships in the disputed island group resulted in both sides losing a vessel, and 120 Vietnamese soldiers killed. A year later, Chinese ships sank three Vietnamese vessels in Fiery Cross Reef with 74 sailors dead. The United States just watched, of course.

Before President Aquino’s three spokespersons go on another flag-waving, saber-rattling tack, they should take very seriously Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile’s advice: “Don’t agitate China.”

“What they are doing is posturing, but when things go really bad, I’m sure they will be the first to run. These subalterns are very talkative,” Enrile angrily said.

Enrile knows what he is talking about: he was there at the inception of this geopolitical flashpoint.

There is a bit of irony in that Mr. Aquino is melodramatically vowing to defend a territory that became part of our country largely through the efforts of somebody whom most knowledgeable people believe ordered the killing of his father: Ferdinand Marcos. Whether a legacy or a curse, without Marcos and his martial rule, we wouldn’t be involved in the Spratlys issue.

The story begins with Tomas Cloma, a courageous seafaring adventurer from Batangas, who was in the fishing business. Partly because of his search for rich fishing waters and partly because of his venturesome personality, Cloma with several of his fishing boats wandered into the Spratly islands in 1956, with his crew of over 40 men even going ashore at the group’s biggest island.

As the islands were not in any standard maps then, Cloma issued a “Proclamation to the whole world” that announced the creation of a new state he called “The Free Territory of Freedomland,” made up of most of the island group. While no nation recognized it, he persisted in asserting “sovereignty” over the area despite his obvious difficulties in occupying it. About 380 kilometers from Palawan, it was even inaccessible in the monsoon season.

Martial law changed a lot of things. In 1974 Marcos threw Cloma in a Camp Crame cell, on grounds of “usurpation of authority” – his drinking buddies at the National Press Club (he wrote for the Manila Bulletin’s shipping section) called him “Admiral.” The real reason for his incarceration though was something else. He was released several months later when he turned over all claims to the islands under a “Deed of Assignment and Waiver of Rights” to the Marcos government –for one peso. Then in 1978, basing his claim on Cloma’s discovery of the islands, Marcos formally annexed the archipelago and made it a municipality of Palawan through Presidential Decree No. 1596.

Marcos certainly knew his international law, especially that part which in effect says that occupation is ownership. Right after Marcos got Cloma’s “deed of assignment,” the Armed Forces of the Philippines under Defense Secretary Enrile quickly and covertly transformed the group’s biggest but uninhabited island into a fortification and named it “Pag-Asa Island.” A heavily armed battalion of Marines was stationed there, and a 1.3 km- runway was constructed, making it easily accessible from Manila. Marcos even had it populated with over 200 civilians. It was the first and probably the last time our country added a new area to our territory beyond what the Spanish turned over to the US when they left in 1898.

Marcos’ action angered the Chinese so much that it made moves that would profoundly affect our history. As Malaysia helped the Moro National Liberation Front in order to retaliate against Marcos’ attempt to re-incorporate Sabah into the Philippines, China sent finances and arms (the latter, unsuccessfully though) to Jose Ma. Sison’s Communist Party of the Philippines in the hope that Marcos would be toppled for his “aggression” in the Spratlys. It is therefore not inaccurate at all to say that our two biggest insurgencies owe much to Marcos’ territorial ambitions.

China and Vietnam claim the Spratlys on grounds that these have been theirs even before the Philippines was born as a sovereign state. The Chinese point to documents (as far back as the Han dynasty in 110 AD) which referred to the area as part of the Middle Kingdom, where Chinese warships and fishermen sought refuge in storms. Vietnam says that the islands it claims were already part of the 17th century Nguyen dynasty’s kingdom.

After all the debate though, “Might is right” and its corollary “Occupation is ownership” have been the supreme principles in the Spratly islands, as these have indeed been in controversies over nations’ territories. China violently evicted the Vietnamese from the Paracel Islands in 1974, and subsequent attempts at incursions by the Vietnamese were met with force. Pag-Asa is a Philippine municipality because of its occupation by our Marines starting 1974, possible only in a martial-law situation. The Chinese especially resented that, as they claim we managed to occupy Pag-Asa only because it was weak and distracted during the chaotic “Cultural Revolution” that ended only in 1976.

But with China resurgent in the 1990s, and since we practically had a zero naval force, we would just sit idly by while China built, starting in 1995, military structures on atolls in Mischief Reef in the Spratlys.

This history should emphasize the need to go on a different tack other than that juvenile “just-try-crossing-my-line” dare of the Aquino administration. A shooting war in the Spratlys certainly isn’t like a video war game Mr. Aquino is fond of playing, in which after a lost “battle” one can just walk away for a smoke in the garden.
From the Philippine Daily Inquirer